Review: ‘The Alcoholic’ by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel

The answer to the age-old do I like him or do I lump him Jonathan Ames riddle is this: He is at his best when he is collaborating with someone else. Done. Signed. Sealed. Sent.

Now I just have to take a stand on Chelsea Handler, and my life will make a lot more sense.

Ames’ graphic novel-ish The Alcoholic is a words-by-Ames, visuals-by-Dean Haspiel story of a rapidly balding man named Jonathan A. and how he got to this moment: Emerging from a black-out drunk, in the backseat of a dirty car with a very old woman (and her cats) who wants to make sweet, sweet love with him. When policemen bust in on the scene, Jonathan A. takes off on a mad sprint through Asbury Park and ends up hiding out, buried in sand, beneath a boardwalk. Then comes the introspection.

He starts with his first pulls off the bottle as a high school student who spends weekends getting wrecked with his best friend Sal, all while deceiving his parents by getting good grades, getting into Yale, playing sports. Relations with Sal go south (Ha!) when they engage in some drunken bumbly fumbly one night and then vow to never speak of it again. “It’ll be better with girls,” Sal tells him.

Then Sal starts running with a new crowd and Jonathan mourns the loss. He graduates, his parents die together in a car accident, he lands in New York where he navigates the drinking life, the writing life, a misadventure as a writer in residence at a school with at least five randy coeds who want to tag-team him and, mostly, a relationship with a much younger woman that is first exhilarating and then IBS causing. This break up finds him staring at his telephone, leaving unanswered messages on her machine, weeping into his vodka, and boring his aunt — his only living relative and own personal wise old sage — with his tales of romantic torture. She eventually jolts him awake with the words “No one gets everything they want. That’s the way it is.”

He wakes up hung over on the morning of September 11, and here the story deviates into something new, both helping a widowed neighbor and simultaneously worrying about what will happen when he tries to donate his Cocaine-flavored blood. This part of the story is a strange digression that feels inset and doesn’t really jibe with the rest of the story so well. It also includes cameos from Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton — not at the same time.

In all of the ways Jonathan Ames has chosen to tell his life story — and there have been plenty including columns for alternative publications, essays, novels loosely based on his life and even his television show “Bored to Death” which is peppered with instances of autobiography.

Haspiel has plenty to do with this effectiveness of this graphic novel, sometimes humor-fused drama of addiction and loss and self-destruction. It’s black and white with purposeful shading that gives the book a real dark-side, rock bottom feel, with a touch of noir — specifically when it comes to the ladies. He’s also unflinching in the face of sexual positions, episodes of irritable bowel syndrome, and depicting the sort or morning after that includes a cab driver who sidelines as a drug dealer and Jonathan A.’s head lodged into a garbage can.

When he flies solo, Ames has a tendency to fall into the edgy pre-teen habit of hiding his writing talent behind shock jock-ery in a way that doesn’t seem as real as this, which is probably as close to his real life as anything else he does. The moments are still there: The Coke, the six-some, the soul-sucking moments of getting fired while wearing just a single shoe. But it’s tempered here and genuine. Hard to tell if it is maturity or making psychological space for Haspiel’s illustrations that makes this the most palatable thing he has done.

This review was originally posted on June 15, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘The Extra Man’ by Jonathan Ames

An obsession with a figure from the lit world does not necessarily mean that I like the object of interest. It just means I’ll consider following him on Twitter, but change my mind. Delve into his canon with a cocked eyebrow. Sometimes I develop such a fixation that even I don’t know if I hate the object of interest, or if I want to tie the object of interest to my bed for optimal hobbling.

Right now I’m interested in Jonathan Ames. I think I kind of hate him, I probably hate him. But I’ve added two of his books to my Wish List so who the hell knows what I really think. It’s such a fine line for me.

Exhibit A: The show “Bored to Death” slays me. A lot of that has to do with Zach Galifianakis, but ultimately it is the creation of Jonathan Ames. It is that kind of funny that is too funny to laugh at every time it deserves a laugh, so I just have to rest my face in an amused position and let it go at that. But deep down I’m squealing.

Exhibit B: An excerpt from The Alcoholic, as seen in Best American Comics 2010 is dynamite. I’d totally read that in its entirety.

Which brings us to The Extra Man, a decade-old novel that is equally as good as it is bad. Louis Ives is a sort of pseudo pretentious fuck who moves to New York City after a shame-filled misadventure with a coworker’s bra. He finds a roommate, Henry, a character of indiscernible age and a walking, talking, dancing fountain of one-liners and life philosophies. Henry is a teacher, but supplements the lifestyle he can’t afford by hanging out with rich old ladies who feed him fancy food and take him to awesome parties and let him crash in their guest rooms in Florida. He is similarly skilled at needling his way into free theater performances.

Louis immediately becomes enamored with Henry and his lifestyle: hobnobbing with the biggies, but doing his laundry in the shower as he bathes, in something akin to the art of grape squishing with the intent to make wine.

At the same time, Louis is going through a super sexual identity crisis. He has always wanted to dress in women’s clothing, look in the mirror and see something beautiful. He starts frequenting a tranny bar near Times Square where he occasionally hooks up with pretty ladies adept at the old tuck-eroo. Afterward, he is a mess of self-loathing, and AIDS paranoia. His curiosity eventually leads him to an extreme tranny makeover, which increases his ugly feelings toward himself. Henry continues to be this peripheral mysterious shouter of one-liners.

This is a case where the main character is an exhausting hot mess of confusion and loathsome personality ticks. How can we like you when you don’t like yourself? He’s technically a well-done character with a strong, albeit annoying and emotionally stunted voice. But spending time with him is brutal. The sideline character is a co-star who outshines everyone else. I guess keeping him in the background lends to his mystique. Is he gay or straight? What was his life like before all of this? What would he say if he knew Louis was catting around the sexual underworld?

As an almost psychology minor, I suspect that Jonathan Ames has known, and has been hugely influenced by an elderly man of a refined taste and snobdom that is not consistent with his home life. I suspect that Jonathan Ames began jotting down this man’s whack daddy musings in a sort of pre-Twitter Shit My Dad Says way. And then I think this old man character creeps into everything that Ames makes. (See also: Ted Danson character on “Bored to Death.”) Some of the best lines from the show are first tested in this novel and Wake Up, Sir.

I’m all for mining your life story for characters and scenes and misadventures. Once. You get one story loosely based on your own life, then you have to be done with it. Purge. Start anew. Otherwise you are just a person with an eye for story potential and and ear for clever dialogue, and the wherewithal to record these and have these pages cinched together with book glue. Unless you call it nonfiction. Then, according to my rule book, you can do this forever and ever as much as you want. Next up: I read Jonathan Ames’ nonfiction collections to get a better sense of my feelings toward him.

This review was originally posted at Minnesota Reads on December 11, 2010.